CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina might be the last stand for Texas Governor Rick Perry if he fails to kick-start his U.S. presidential bid soon.
Overshadowed by Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney and hit by gaffes and missteps, former front-runner Perry has seen his support tumble to single-digit percentages in states voting early for the Republican nomination.
If his luck does not turn in the first two states holding contests for the Republican nomination, then Perry will need a strong showing among conservatives in South Carolina on January 21 just to stay in the race for the right to run against President Barack Obama in 2012.
One Perry adviser called South Carolina the governor’s “last stand” if he fails to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier in January, as it looks likely.
“I hate to say it, but if he’s not gotten a second look by the third primary, then he may not get a chance to win a second look anywhere else,” said another aide.
“If, after South Carolina, he’s in second place or a very close third, in the double digits, he can stay in it for the long haul.”
South Carolina is a watershed in the primaries, the end of the first rush before the expensive race in Florida.
Unlike other second tier candidates who will likely drop out of the race after Iowa and New Hampshire, Perry has a strong campaign finance machine which could keep him in the running even without strong poll support. He raised more money than any of his Republican rivals in the third quarter.
Perry’s fund raising, which fell off a cliff after a series of debate gaffes, has improved, said Katon Dawson, Perry’s campaign chief in South Carolina.
“You are going to get to see me a lot,” Perry told a crowd aboard the Yorktown aircraft carrier museum outside Charleston, South Carolina, on Thursday, asking voters to “give me a second look.”
Perry seemed to enjoy a series of campaign stops in South Carolina.
He dove back into the crowd after an event, shaking hands and patting backs as his handlers steered him toward curtains. He gave a toddler a high five and made a young Boy Scout promise to work until he achieved the top rank, Eagle.
“He did local politics much better than many of the other gentlemen in the race,” said Bill Fearns, president of the Republican Club in Sun City retirement community.
Despite kicking off his campaign in South Carolina, Perry has not been seen often in the state, where as a southerner with both fiscal and social conservative credentials he seems to be a natural fit.
But Perry’s poll situation is drastic. Real Clear Politics’ tally of recent South Carolina polls shows Gingrich, who was also campaigning in the state on Thursday, crushing Perry by about five to one and perennial second-best Romney by about 20 percentage points.
One hope for Perry might be if support for Gingrich wilts under media attention that is portraying the former House of Representatives speaker as a Washington insider with murky business connections.
“Here’s how Perry can win that back: he can say, listen, I had some stumbles before, but that’s because, you know, I‘m not a Washington insider slick politician. But I am the guy. If you look at Newt’s beliefs, he’s on multiple sides of an issue. If you look at Newt’s background, he is not the true conservative I am,” said Scott Huffmon, a pollster from Winthrop University.
“Whether or not it is possible for him to do that is an entirely different question,” he added. Winthrop this week released a survey of 340 likely South Carolina Republican primary voters that showed Perry third with 9 percent to Gingrich’s 38 percent.
The state also has shown a knack for picking presidential candidates. Every South Carolina Republican primary winner has gone on to head the Republican presidential ticket since 1980.
Previous elections have shown room for big swings. A Pew/AP poll of South Carolina in November 2007 had John McCain, the eventual winner, and Mike Huckabee, who took second, running in fourth and fifth place.
But Perry’s campaign has staggered into a blizzard of negative attention this week for a new video in which he says there is “something wrong in the country” because homosexuals can serve openly in the military.
The spot may have been meant to reinforce Perry’s credentials as a strong Christian conservative in states like South Carolina, but it has gone too far for many Americans, particularly younger voters, some of whom said it should be banned as hate speech.
By Friday, 10,255 people who had viewed the spot on YouTube had clicked that they “liked” it, but 424,988 had said they disliked it, making it one of the most disliked pieces ever posted on the video sharing site.
Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham